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Monique Nelson and the Future of Advertising

UniWorld Group, Inc. (UWG) is the longest-standing, full-service, multicultural marketing agency in the US. Its Chair and CEO, Monique Nelson, is a passionate advocate for her brand and its mission to meet the needs of clients and consumers across the country. We were lucky enough to sit down with her to talk about the future of multicultural advertising, the democratization of marketing and how to get more women into the C-suite.

UWG was founded in 1969 as a pioneer in multicultural advertising. How do you see the world of advertising evolving in the future, as more and more companies embrace multicultural viewpoints?


American minorities are coming into focus more and more, which is great for brands that value culture. Companies are starting to take that into account—that multicultural is what it means to be American—and they’re celebrating that. Being multicultural is one of the things that makes this nation so complex and so wonderful, so it’s going to be interesting to see exactly how that plays out, in terms of advertising.

UWG has undergone a fairly significant rebranding process since you took the helm as CEO. What types of challenges were there in creating and implementing that rebranding initiative?

We’re celebrating 47 years this year, which is a long time for many companies, and we’re really proud of that. But that can be a blessing and a curse—when you’re iconic and have been around for a long time, people assume they know you. And one of our challenges was to figure out how to say, “You know our core, but you don’t really know what we are now.”

We were absolutely born out of the civil rights movement, which, de facto, made us primarily black. But we’ve always been a place where we celebrated not only black culture, but Hispanic culture, Asian culture, et cetera—our team is so diverse, and we’ve had that as a part of UWG’s culture for the past 47 years. So, part of that rebranding was to expand what we do everyday to really be important to everyone, broadly, and not just to one group of people.

Advertisers continue to focus more on digital and social tactics to reach users; how is UWG adapting to the changing face of media and advertising?

One of the tricky things in this current digital environment is that it’s changing so quickly, and you need to be very, very thoughtful about hiring people who are curious and who want to learn more all the time. Who could have imagined that after Facebook would come Twitter, after Twitter would come Instagram, after Instagram would come Snapchat, and after Snapchat would come Vine? These things have all been developed in the last 10 years! So, while you don’t necessarily have to hire a Snapchat expert, you want to hire someone who has a very strong digital mind, who lives and breathes digital, and wants to learn and mine what’s new and what’s fresh.

What I’m calling “digital” right now is really the democratization of marketing—you now have so many places for people to engage with your product and your brand. There are so many ways for consumers to tell you what they’re actually thinking and feeling, and that’s really important, but it also makes for a very cyclical marketing system that needs to be always-on—which means that everything we’ve done to date, from a traditional standpoint, has really been tossed up in the air. Now we need to think about the best ways for our communication to reach the target, regardless of the platform—because new platforms are being created practically every day. It’s a different model that we’re all adapting to.

Looking ahead, what do you see as the next big platform for advertisers?

I think augmented reality is right on the edge—as we get more and more capability on our mobile devices, that engagement level and that extra layer of virtual experience will continue to take shape.

But do you know what I really think is coming back? Face-to-face. I think we’re going to come around to that again and get back to meeting in person and having human interactions. I have a funny feeling the pendulum will swing back that way.

You mentioned the importance of hiring people who are curious. How do you make sure you’re hiring and retaining the kind of people who are going to help you get to the next level?

Our research and development initiative, Culture Labs, where we collaborate with local colleges in New York City, is huge for us. I love this program first and foremost because we’re working with college students—I love that they come in with fresh ideas. Once we complete the set-up—we’re ready to do it in our other two offices—I’m excited about having that local energy, not only for our clients, but so we can bubble that up as a broad think tank for the agency and offer it to clients, whether as a separate product or something that we just weave into our everyday work. From a pipeline standpoint, I’m hoping the students in our Culture Labs will want to work for us after they’re finished with school. They already know our environment, they know what we do every day and how we do it, and there’s no better way to bring people on board than to hire those who have already been trained.

Women CEOs are vastly outnumbered by male CEOs, but you’ve found yourself with a seat at the table. How can we ensure that women fearlessly seek and gain a stronger foothold in the C-suite?

Personally, I was always really clear about the things I wanted to do and achieve. And I was never afraid to tell that to people. That was key for me.

I also had really strong female role models—along with some men—not just in my personal life, but in my professional life, who were real champions. And they fed my curiosity—if I wanted to try something, I could. I rarely was told, “no,” primarily because I led with, “Here’s what I’d like to do.” And sometimes, I would just do a job that needed to be done, without asking anyone for permission. Those little bits of initiative that I took at different points in my career allowed me to not only do the job I was doing, but also set me up to do the job I wanted next.

I think women get a little scared about “leaning in,” so to speak. “Lean in” in a way that works for you—it’s about being authentically you and knowing where you’re going to be successful. Say what you mean, go in with a professional understanding of what you’re looking for, be thoughtful about how you present yourself and your ideas, and then just go for it.

People worry about coming across as abrasive. But you can just lay out your ideas like you’d lay out a conversation with a friend. Surprisingly, if it makes sense, people are going to say, “That sounds good. Keep talking.” We often psych ourselves out. We talk ourselves out of something because we can’t see it happening, or we just don’t believe in ourselves or our vision. Ultimately, if you don’t believe, no one else will either.

What’s the best advice you can offer to tomorrow’s leaders?

Be yourself.  My mantra is, “Everywhere you go, there you are.”

Be focused. Once you figure out where your lane is, go hard.

Collaboration is key to everything—being able to communicate with different types of people and understand what’s important to them is so essential.

Have a vision. Writing down what you want makes things a lot clearer. I know that once I write my goals down, they become very real, and I become much more accountable to them.

If you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to have an entrepreneurial spirit. This is not for the faint of heart. There are some scary moments, but you’ll get through it.

Always look for the win-win. Win-loss rarely lasts long, and I treat everything like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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